The story begins with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who after an argument with her boyfriend Ben (Bradley Cooper), leaves town. While driving through rural Louisiana, she is in a violent car accident and wakes up in what can only be called a prison cell. Her knee is injured and she is hooked up to an IV. A man enters the room and gives her a plate of food. This is Harold (John Goodman). Michelle is desperate to escape and after a couple of failed attempts, Harold tells her that he rescued her from her car and brought her to his bunker. He also tells her that there’s nowhere for her to go. There has been an attack and the air outside is toxic. Michelle isn’t ready to believe him until she meets the other occupant in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Emmett confirms everything Harold has told Michelle and the three settle into an uneasy living arrangement. The arrangement is uneasy because Harold is clearly unhinged and because they can never leave, Michelle can never be sure what’s real and what isn’t. Is Harold right? Is the bunker the only way for the three of them to survive? And who was responsible for the attack?
I don’t want to delve into too much of the plot, because the best part of the film is in not knowing what’s real and what’s not. For much of the film, it is a very creepy and very effective psychological thriller. You’re never sure if Harold’s completely crazy or right on target with everything he’s saying. You also never know how he’s going to react to anything that happens in the bunker. The problem I had with the film is not the sci-fi bent that takes hold as the film goes on, but that by the end, that portion of the material goes just a bit too far. For a film that is so grounded through the majority of the run time, the end just bends the rules way too far, not just from a sci-fi angle, but realism in general. The psychological angle is far more compelling, but at times, the film also felt like a short story that was pumped up past what the plot could handle. Also, there’s no real clear connection to Cloverfield. That didn’t bother me so much, but it might confuse some moviegoers expecting a straight up sequel.
The cast is absolutely stellar here and they really carry the material above and beyond the script. Though Winstead’s Michelle makes some questionable decisions at times—read: typical horror movie no-nos—she was a heroine worth rooting for. Gallagher Jr. is also good as the comic relief. Emmett and Michelle form a real bond over the film and it’s done through simple, honest scenes between the two of them. Credit should go to the performers, but also to Director Dan Trachtenberg as well as Screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle. However, the film is absolutely owned by John Goodman as Harold. Goodman’s performance is so pitch perfect without ever falling into self-parody. He will remind you why he’s such a great actor. He goes from loving, to sinister, to aloof all at the drop of a dime. His work here truly cannot be praised enough. He’s so good.
Overall, while 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a perfect film, for much of its run time it is a taut thriller before devolving into sci-fi/horror schlock. The performances of the three main cast members—especially John Goodman—are worth the price of admission. It’s a solid movie, but don’t expect a true sequel to Cloverfield.